Why we need an independent OfSTED

Roger Titcombe's picture
In the thread about the Derby Islamic Free School that has got into trouble with OfSTED and the DfE, 'Andy' challenged a number of my posts that referred to my concerns about the role of OfSTED. I quickly realised that having been out of schools since 2003, quite a lot of changes have taken place. 'Andy' appears to be an OfSTED insider to some degree, so compared to his up to date knowledge I admit to being out of my depth.

However, I have long standing concerns about the relationship between OfSTED and the Ministry of Education (in all its present and prior forms). This is not about faith schools, religion or atheism.

My worries go back to the period when the first Academies were being established. Some of what follows was in my earlier post, 'OfSTED and DfES - Partners in Spin'

This refers to a Protocol agreed between OfSTED and the DfES in 2004


OFSTED involvement in the Academies policy

1. Academies Division (AD) will seek advice from OFSTED – through the OFSTED Academy lead HMI – on initial proposals for an Academy prior to moving into the Feasibility phase.
2. AD will inform OFSTED prior to submitting to Ministers a proposal to enter into a funding agreement to enter the Implementation phase and to establish an Academy.
3. AD will keep OFSTED informed of progress, and provide OFSTED with the opportunity to contribute to the development of the Academies policy, through termly meetings between OFSTED and AD.
4. OFSTED monitoring letters of visits to low attaining secondary schools in receipt of Leadership Incentive Grant (LIG), Special Measures (SM) and any other OfSTED visits to schools will be copied to the AD OFSTED contact point who will arrange for them to be forwarded to relevant AD colleagues.
5. When they enter Feasibility phase, each Academy predecessor school will have a named AD lead Adviser. OFSTED will ensure that the lead monitoring HMI (for those schools which are subject to SM) or the HMI who visits the school (under the arrangements for LIG schools, if it is not subject to SM) are aware of the school’s transition to Academy status. The OFSTED lead Academy HMI will discuss progress or concerns about the school with the AD lead adviser to ensure a coordinated approach with the predecessor school during the period leading up to opening as an Academy. This will take place at termly AD/OFSTED meetings.
7. All of the predecessor schools will receive a visit during the Academy’s Implementation phase The timing of this visit will be discussed at the termly AD/OFSTED meetings and will usually be scheduled for the term following the start of the Implementation phase. However, if the school has recently been inspected by OFSTED or if there are other circumstances where OFSTED and AD agree that it would be of benefit for a visit to take place at a different point, including during the Feasibility phase, then alternative arrangements may be agreed at the termly meetings.
8. The AD Adviser lead will send OFSTED a short summary of progress with the Academy proposal prior to HMI’s monitoring visit."

It is also agreed in the Protocol that inspections should be “helpful in promoting the academy’s progress’”.

My LSN debate with 'Andy' about the Derby Free School followed from my suggestion that Free Schools, including Faith Free Schools get special treatment from OfSTED. Andy assures us that this is not the case.

The 2004 Protocol certainly shows that OfSTED and the government have 'form' in that when it came to inspecting the new Academies, the Labour government was anxious they should be a success and that the predecessor schools should be closed. The wrong kind of inspection reports could have been a problem. Many predecessor schools were suddenly declared to be failing after a succession of previously positive OfSTED reports.

Rather than revisiting the details, let us just look at the Protocol. Was this relationship between the government and the independent inspector of one of its pet projects appropriate? At the time, OfSTED was indeed claiming to be independent. This was on the home page of the OfSTED website in 2004.

“We do not report to government ministers but directly to Parliament (and to the Lord Chancellor about children and family courts administration). This independence means you can rely on us for impartial information.”

It is hard to see how this could have been true in the light of the Protocol, which I obtained through a Freedom of Information request.

In his speech at the last Conservative Party Conference, Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt referred to hospital safety scandals and especially that at the Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.

He accused the former government of influencing the regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), to cover up the failings at hospitals in the run up to the 2010 General Election. I am not going into the truth or otherwise of that allegation, but Hunt announced an important change in the status of the CQC. It is to be made independent of the government and to report directly to parliament, in exactly the way that OfSTED was falsely claiming back in 2004.

Good for Jeremy Hunt. This is the right decision and a brave one, because the CQC now has the authority to question the government's management of the NHS. However, what is right for the NHS is surely also right for the DfE.

OfSTED should be made fully independent, be staffed entirely by state employed and appointed HMIs (rather than Serco and the like), report directly to parliament and be free to criticise the Secretary of State for Education's management of the Education Service.

If Tristram Hunt feels it necessary to toughen up the regulation of Free Schools then this would be an effective and appropriate way to do it.
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